GEOFFREY LEAN: Failing water giants are making us a Septic Isle
Yet again our sceptred isle has been turned into a septic one. Shakespeare’s ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’ is once more being lapped by stinking sewage.
Last weekend, Southern Water – notorious even in the disgracefully dirty water industry – pumped raw sewage out of more than half its outlets around the South East coast, soiling clear water and beautiful beaches from the Isle of Wight to Kent.
In places, the discharges continued for more than 40 hours.
This latest episode is no isolated outrage. Last year, shockingly, there were more than 400,000 such incidents involving streams, rivers and the sea around the country, lasting a staggering three million hours.
Last weekend, Southern Water pumped raw sewage out of more than half its outlets around the South East coast, soiling clear water from the Isle of Wight to Kent (stock image)
This appalling record is the result of decades of failure by the water companies to clean up their act – despite raking in vast profits – and a light-touch approach by the authorities designed to regulate them.
Some of the pollution is from sewage works, but most gushes from overflow pipes which are only supposed to release such filth in ‘exceptional’ circumstances.
Southern Water’s action will raise a special stink since, less than three months ago, it was fined £90million after pleading guilty to 51 charges of releasing raw sewage in the ‘worst case brought by the Environment Agency in its history’.
The prosecution claimed that this was done ‘deliberately’ because ‘it was a far cheaper alternative than to properly treat it’ and that, as a result, the company – ultimately owned by American, Australian and British investment funds – had reaped ‘considerable financial advantage’.
The court heard that the discharges – which caused ‘very considerable environmental damage’ – were ‘known about and permitted at a high level in the company’, and yet, despite this, it had failed even to report them to the Environment Agency.
The judge, Mr Justice Johnson, noted Southern had previously been fined ‘substantial amounts for similar offences’ but there was ‘no evidence’ it ‘took any notice’, adding: ‘Its offending simply continued.’
Less than three months ago, Southern Water was fined £90million after pleading guilty to 51 charges of releasing raw sewage (stock image)
There are few signs it has changed its ways since. Even before last weekend’s desecration of coastal bathing spots, Southern’s record had shown no sign of improvement.
During the months since Mr Justice Johnson’s judgment, ‘black sludge’ has fouled beaches at Pagham, Elmer, Aldwick and Bognor, for example, and ‘soggy toilet paper’ has covered the Pocket Nature Reserve near Maidstone after a spill.
Sewage has even been pumped into Hampshire’s Pillhill Brook chalk stream, a habitat described as ‘unique’ by the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Meanwhile, Chichester Harbour, supposedly one of the country’s most protected marine environments, has had so much sewage pumped into it this year that it is said to be nearing ‘catastrophe’ status.
Shamefully, the company has set itself a deadline of 2040 to eliminate pollution incidents – almost two decades away.
Last year it made more than £138million profit, down from more than £212million in 2019 mainly because of fines. Despite this, its chief executive picked up a £550,900 bonus on top of his £435,000 pay packet.
This summer the Sydney-based Macquarie Group bought a majority stake in Southern for £1billion. Dubbed ‘the vampire kangaroo’, it is notorious for having previously extracted millions of pounds of dividends from Thames Water.
And this is part of a pattern across the industry. When the water companies were privatised three decades ago, ministers promised they would not fall into foreign hands. By 2013, most had.
Privatisation was supposed to help water companies raise funds to invest in cleaning up. Instead they prioritised increasing dividends, paying out £56billion to shareholders while racking up £51billion in debt.
Now 53 per cent of British rivers are in a poor state, largely because of sewage discharges.
Only 14 per cent are in good ecological condition, and none have ‘good’ chemical status. We have been left, literally, in the s**t. It has to stop.
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